Can God Be Virtuous?

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 415-416.

Carneades of Cyrene was a skeptic in the third-second centuries B.C.E. Copleston discusses Carneades’ critique of religion, particularly Stoicism. The following is interesting:

The Stoic God is animate and so must be possessed of feeling. But if he can feel and receive impressions, then he can suffer from impressions and is ultimately liable to disintegration. Moreover, if God is rational and perfect, as the Stoics suppose Him to be, He cannot be “virtuous,” as the Stoics also suppose Him to be. How, for example, can God be brave or courageous? What dangers or pains or labors affect Him, in respect of which He can show courage?

Can God be truly virtuous? Yes, God is more loving than I am, so I guess he’s more virtuous in that area. But, as Carneades points out, how can God be courageous, when nothing really threatens him?

Indeed, God cannot be physically threatened, at least not when he’s in heaven (since Jesus suffered and died when he was on earth). But can God be emotionally hurt? Is that what Copleston means when he says that a feeling God can suffer from impressions and disintegrate in the process? When God reaches out to us in love, he is risking rejection, and that’s painful. Moreover, God may hurt inside when he sees all of the evil in the world, as people mistreat one another.

My Armstrongite religious background was sort of a mixed-bag when it came to a “hurting God.” I remember David Antion somewhat ridiculing the concept, as he remarked that many Christians think that they can hurt God, presumably when they sin. “Oh, you hurt me again!,” Antion mimicked God saying (in the “hurting God” scenario). And one of my relatives likes Psalm 103:12-14: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (KJV). For my relative, God doesn’t feel “hurt” by human sin because he doesn’t expect much out of humans in the first place.

On the other hand, Garner Ted Armstrong in one of his theodicy sermons remarked, “Why does God hide himself? Because he’s afraid to look.” He compared God’s hiding himself to parents who wouldn’t want to watch their prostitute daughter’s debauchery. It hurts them too much! Similarly, it hurts God to look at human evil.

I guess my picture of God is somewhere in between these extremes. I don’t think God repeatedly says “Oh, you hurt me again,” as if he’s on an emotional roller-coaster and is utterly dependant on us for his happiness. My God is more rational, objective, level-headed, and mature than that. At the same time, I believe that God does feel. When somebody loves people as much as God does, it’s hard to imagine him not getting hurt.

That brings me to another point. There is a sense in which God the Father and Jesus can be virtuous in areas that we cannot. They love people more deeply than we do, and so they open themselves up to a lot more pain, which requires a greater degree of courage and commitment on their part. But there is also a sense in which humans have the ability to exercise virtue where God the Father and Jesus do not. Jesus suffered and died at the hands of human beings, and his willingness to do so is admirable. But he had actually seen and experienced God. He knew that God existed and loved him. He could face things with the confidence that God would see him through and work things out. Many of us, however, trust a God whom we can’t even see. That’s why Jesus lauded those who had faith without seeing (John 20:29). In a sense, we have less to go on than Jesus did in our attempt to be courageous in the face of death.

Moreover, we also choose to do good, whereas God is naturally-inclined towards righteousness. Some may say that God is more virtuous on account of this. Who is better, they ask: one who struggles with a murderous impulse, or one who doesn’t struggle at all, who doesn’t have one hateful thought or feeling in his body? I’d respond that it would be nice to arrive at a point where we are so inclined towards righteousness that we don’t even struggle against evil, but I still admire those who struggle and choose good over those who don’t have to struggle at all.

That’s why many Christians debate whether Jesus was capable of sin. Both sides agree that he didn’t sin, but was he able to do so? Many Christians argue that he was so internally righteous that he was completely incapable of sinning. They appeal to II Corinthians 5:21, which says that Christ “knew no sin.” Armstrongites and many Seventh-Day Adventists contend, by contrast, that Christ could sin, which is why Hebrews 4:15 states that he was tempted in all points as we are. The way some SDAs present the situation, Christ had sinful human flesh, but he overcame his sinful nature through the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit. So maybe Jesus did have the same opportunity to choose virtue as we do.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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